Graffiti has tainted the streets of San Diego for decades, but one local business is trying to turn what could be a crime into an art form. Writerz Blok, based in Southeast San Diego, is attempting to positively influence young people by providing them with a free canvas where they can show off their art skills without damaging property.
Writerz Blok is the first legal graffiti park in the nation where people can spray paint on thousands of footage of blank walls. It used to be called Graff Creek when current leaders Sergio Gonzalez and Jose Venegas were introduced to it in their youth. At that point, it was a nomadic group trying to teach kids art lessons with the ultimate goal of keeping them off the streets.
Graff Creek turned into Writerz Blok after its first year where both Gonzalez and Venegas took leadership roles. Along with the yard full of walls to paint on, they now offer art classes, restoration and community service. They also work with the local police in preventing vandalism and restoring defaced property.
The progressive graffiti movement in San Diego
When Gonzalez and Venegas were younger, graffiti was considered a significant problem in San Diego. It intertwined with gangs and violence. Venegas said he can remember being 10 years old and seeing people get shot for the first time. He also remembers his first encounter with graffiti.
“Our backyard was a creek, so we used to hear teenagers walk through with cans and when they would leave, we would jump the fence and we picked them up,” Venegas said. “We saw what they did and monkey see, monkey do.”
Rather than trying to diminish an art form many enjoy, Gonzalez and Venegas are trying to change it for the youth. Gonzalez said a lot of kids in the area are being raised by grandparents or foster care families. He said this makes them identify their friends as family and sometimes, that isn’t good.
VIDEO: Gonzalez and Venegas discuss the story behind Writerz Blok
“There’s definitely that thin line of whether you’re going in the right path or the wrong path,” Gonzalez said. “When they come to Writerz Blok, we’re able to help them and mentor them.”
Venegas said it’s about sparking the idea in kids’ heads that they can get paid to do art instead of being arrested or involved with gangs. They offer internships and jobs that will promote many professional skills, such as graphic design, screen-printing, marketing and advertising. He describes how some people get a “sense” where they’re drawn to graffiti art. Venegas identifies himself as one of those people and explains that the sense can be pursued in a productive manner.
Writerz Blok is in partnership with the Jacobs Family Foundation where they have the funding to give back throughout the community. Gonzalez recently went to a local charter school where he taught traditional art forms to students after school.
“We think that every child should have some type of art training or some type of art schooling because we think it’s crucial for them to have that kind of creativity in them,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez added they try to mimic the current exhibitions in the museums and then take the kids to the museum once their projects are complete.
Rogelio Casas works in the education department at the San Diego Museum of Art and often works with the men from Writerz Blok, whether it’s in the yard or at different schools. He said it’s been a great experience teaching with them and seeing how the kids react to graffiti art.
“It was kind of breaking boundaries for them to explore aerosol and graphics,” Casas said. “They’re not going to go knocking on the doors of larger institutions to learn about graffiti art, they’re going to start in an urban environment.”
The history of graffiti
Graffiti often takes the forms of tagging or being gang-related. Tagging is the act of defacing property and is the most common in San Diego. Gang-related graffiti is a way to show gang representation and to create intimidation.
Roy Whitaker, a pop culture and religion professor at San Diego State University, said graffiti originated through the hip-hop culture. He said hip-hop began with four basic elements: the emcee, the disc jockey, the break-dancer and the graffiti artist.
“When hip-hop began in New York roughly 40 years ago, it was these four traditional elements that worked together to get the party going,” Whitaker said.
He said the graffiti artists had a role to take to the streets with aerosol cans and magic markers to promote the various parties. Kevin Donovan, more commonly known as DJ Afrika Bambaataa, is credited as one of the originators of the hip-hop movement. Whitaker said Donovan was a gang member, therefore giving the movement some origins with gang culture.
Whitaker said over time there has been an eroding of the element of graffiti in the hip-hop culture. He has taught it in his class to educate students on what he believes is an amazing art form with creativity and style.
VIDEO: Professor discusses hip-hop graffiti versus gang graffiti
The future of Writerz Blok
Today, Writerz Blok attracts around 500 visitors a month. Although it sees more traffic, people tend to be skeptical at first.
“We show them our portfolios and what we’ve done and where we’re going and where we came from. We’re going through the same issue as graffiti art as far as people understanding what we’re doing,” Venegas said.
Venegas and Gonzalez say it’s a priority to keep their doors open and to hopefully expand to different communities.
“It pretty much changed my life,” Gonzalez said. “Now my goal is to pass on my education and mentor the youth in this neighborhood and neighborhoods abroad.”